(Translated from my old Italian text by DommeDamian)
Stan Ridgway has
established himself over the years as one of rock music's most creative and
spectacular songwriters. At its peak, his music is the rock equivalent of Morricone's scores: ghostly floating notes, requiem-like
melodies, baroque keyboards and psychedelic effects. In addition, the lyricismnarrates the vicissitudes of drifters of all sorts
(criminals, bankrupts, drug addicts, perverts, the insane) immersed in
nightmarish, almost expressionist environments, something halfway between 1930s
thrillers and the stories of Bukovsky.
Stan Ridgway began
in one of the many groups that came to the fore with punk-rock: Wall of
Voodoo. That group was more of a supporter of a macabre and solemn
country-rock, arranged with guitars, double keyboards and disco beats. The
1980 EP of the same name (for Index) introduced them as the cow-punks
fashionable at the time in Los Angeles, but Dark Continent,
on the strength of Granma's House, began the progression
that would lead them to the classy Call of The West (IRS,
electronic effects, and pitched in Ridgway's brooding, stately baritone, the
ballads on that record always ended up sounding psychotic and
apocalyptic. Between sinister hyper-realist vignettes from film noir
like Lost Weekend and Tomorrow and robotic
ballets like Look At Their Way hovered
the specter of post-industrial civilization. The lengthy Factory and Call
of The West explored everyday life, the
soundtrack of a vast "human barbeque", with overtones from western
films, beat poetry, hard-boiled detective stories and Marx Brothers
slapstick. It all culminates in the surreal orgy of Mexican Radio,
grotesque and tragic at the same time. Much of the charm of those ballads
was due to Ridgway's voice, to his possessed preacher bearing, but it was the
accompanying sound, especially the keyboards and rhythms, that gave the
atmosphere that surreal end-of-the-world sense (as demonstrated by the
instrumental On Interstate 15 ), not far from the music of Ennio Morricone.
Wall Of Voodoo was to dance music what the Cramps were to
rockabilly. By transmuting the disco audience, they redefined it. By
defacing danceable rhythms, they made it an extremely effective vehicle for the
transmission of alienation. The group would continue for a few years under
new lead singer Andy Prieboy, but the soul, Ridgway,
had gone elsewhere.
Ridgway is one of
the most original innovators of the singer-songwriter figure. He kept the
danceable base of his old group, but grafted a tragic and sinister sound onto
it to tell stories, no less tragic and sinister, from film noir (and sometimes
even from spaghetti-westerns).
The album The
Big Heat (IRS, 1986) inaugurates this new season. The title track
narrates a Sergio Leone anecdote through a dance-pop with a (synthetic) trot
rhythm, punctuated by electronic effects and a "nocturnal"
harmonica; and the chorus comes straight out of a British electro-pop
song. Alan Vega and Peter Gabriel are the influenceson Pick
It Up ,
a ‘rap’ propelled by a martial syncopation that alternates with South American tribalisms and Middle Eastern violins. On the lighter
side belong the country & western Pile Driver and the
accelerated blues Salesman , both
energized by disco rhythms and electronic arrangements. The effect is
always overwhelming, and sometimes borders on the neurotic rock of Wall Of Voodoo, like on Drive She Said.
But the true
standout is Camouflage , which
exploits the essence of Morricone's music: the epic
cadenzas of a desert ride, the string sections imbued with nostalgia and
danger, the strumming of a banjo in the background, the fatalistic
chorus. Ridgway doesn't hesitate to get his hands dirty with Kitsch culture. His
sardonic and hallucinatory singing is able to swallow anything and recycle it
in the form of absolute truth. Ridgway plays the cool catastrophe
commentator, moreover with a thematic, caustic sense of humor.
(Translated from my old Italian text by DeepL)
Mosquitos (Geffen, 1989) is not as impeccable, compromised with electro-symphonic new age (Heat Takes A Walk) and kitsch, but strong nonetheless with at least one other classic, a reggae- and texmex-step Calling Out To Carol, and realist vignettes such as Lonely Town, Peg And Pete And Me, and Goin' Southbound. The problem is that everything sounds underwhelming, tired, distracted, predictable.
On Partyball (Geffen, 1991) the interesting songs are rare: just Jack Talked, Overlords and especially I Wanna Be A Boss (almost a reprise of Camouflage).
Songs That Made This Country Great (IRS, 1992)
is a horrible anthology that presents some major songs in their worst versions, omits about ten masterpieces but includes about ten of the most boring songs.
Later, Ridgway devoted himself to a side project with the Drywall which yielded
Work The Dumb Oracle (IRS, 1995) and the decent ballads
New Blue Mercedes, Big American Problem and My Exclusive Sex Club.
This album and the soundtrack of the related film will be collected on
The Drywall Project / The Drywall Incident (TWA, 1996).
Ridgway released a last solo album,
Black Diamond (Birdcage, 1996), proving that the creative decline was
irreversible, despite a couple of intriguing songs
(Crystal Palace and Big Dumb Town).
This shrewd storyteller, this musical cross between novelist Jim Thompson and director Sergio Leone, gave his most important compositions on his first solo record, unearthing musical and moral territory that borders on that of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but which no one had yet explored.
The EP Film Songs (1997) collects assorted works.
The return of Stan Ridgway the magic storyteller comes with
Anatomy (New West, 1999).
Mission Bell, Train Of Thought and Deep Blue Polka Dot
rank fairly high in his
repertory, although too many of these songs are third-rate by his standards.
His gallery of bizarre characters keeps growing, though, and he has found again
the touch for that dark, noir, moody music.
Distracted by his work in cinema soundtracks, in the following three years
Ridgway delivered only a mediocre
Holiday In Dirt (New West, 2002), that mainly recycles old material
from singles and soundtracks (End Of The Line).
Snakebite (Redfly, 2004) is possibly Ridgway's most eclectic work,
running the gamut from pop to country to rock to jazz to blues.
His storytelling is not as majestic as it used to be, mainly because it
focuses on personal rather than universal themes
(My Own Universe, Classic Hollywood Ending,
Into the Sun, Our Manhattan Moment),
with the notable exception of the
soldier's tale My Rose Marie, but the arrangements are pure
stylistic delight: each of the main songs
(Runnin' with the Carnival,
Crow Hollow Blues,
Your Rockin' Chair,
The Big 5-0,
Wake Up Sally,
Afghan/Forklift) is a small miracle of sonic creation.
The best of the personal meditations is Talkin' Wall of Voodoo Blues Pt 1, where Ridgway turns into an Homer crafting his own Odyssey.
Blood (Porterhouse, 2004) is the music composed by
Stan Ridgway and Pietra Wexstun for an art exhibition.